Brian Kelcey is a Winnipeg-based urban policy consultant.
It’s been a rough year so far for Ottawa’s Police Services Board. After a “trucker convoy” occupation, a council purge, two waves of resignations and the departure of its police chief, it is now so dysfunctional that it doesn’t even have the ability to legally meet quorum right now.
This is a problem. But it’s also an opportunity. Ottawa isn’t the only city in Canada that needs help with a broken model of police oversight.
A 2016 review of Halifax’s Board of Police Commissioners found that it was “not performing [oversight] in a meaningful way” – yet years later, board members have just gone through a few rounds of debate over whether it even has the authority to review a controversial police operation. In Winnipeg, veteran city councillor Brian Mayes resigned his police board seat on March 8, insisting city-board relations were “dysfunctional, with ongoing arguments over respective roles and jurisdiction.” The Toronto G20 inquiry report – which chided the police board for being overly deferential to police commanders – is a biblical-length version of the same story.
Flawed police governance creates a merry-go-round of finger-pointing unaccountability. In 2021, hundreds of Toronto police officers cleared homeless camps out of city parks, using tactics and numbers rarely seen elsewhere in similar operations. Whether you want to attack the move or applaud it, it doesn’t matter much, since no one can give reporters a straight answer on who authorized it. Police commanders pointed to City Hall. City managers pointed to the police board. In turn, Mayor John Tory said that his seat on Toronto’s police board meant he couldn’t answer questions, since it might prejudice him – as if police board members were meant to behave like impartial jurors.
To fix this, we need a national change in thinking.
For decades, Canadian provinces made it a priority to snuff out any risk of civic officials giving “operational direction” to independent police forces, to avoid even the impression that they take orders from politicians. To achieve this, most provinces created (or reformed) city police boards to serve as employers of record for local constables, instead of the cities themselves. Board membership is usually an awkward mix of councillors and citizens appointed by both cities or provinces, serving with little staff or legal support.
If this sounds a lot like governance for a local zoo or a harbour commission, well, it is. The difference: zoo directors can set policy and ask tough questions. Police board members who try to do either are quickly trampled by city lawyers, police commanders, or provincial governments for fear of violating the gospel of “no operational direction.” And indeed, legitimate democratic pressures from the left, right and centre around fiscal balance, operational modernization, fairer enforcement or violence reduction are all implicitly treated as “operational direction.” Despite constant pressure from voters to contain property taxes, police budgets grow almost automatically because provincial police laws discourage or ban most city councils from reviewing them, while police boards have no political incentive to challenge spending.
It’s still the case that city councils can legally propose or approve a topline police budget number. Yet even that authority is under attack. Heading into a tough budget year in 2021, Vancouver Council gave police a tiny increase for 2021. (Note: Vancouver’s police budget had already grown by more than 50 per cent in the previous decade.) However, with Chief Adam Palmer’s support, the Vancouver Police Board appealed the budget, based on a law that allows Victoria bureaucrats to intervene if funding isn’t “adequate.” Under B.C.’s absurd rules, Mayor Kennedy Stewart automatically chairs Vancouver’s board, but he isn’t allowed to vote – so he couldn’t even go on record opposing unelected colleagues on the board who “unanimously” appealed his own city budget.
A year later, the faceless, unelected B.C. assistant deputy minister who gets to resolve the appeal still hasn’t closed the file. Our police governance model is so broken, Canada’s eighth-largest municipality still can’t even tell you with certainty if it was legal to give police a small budget increase, instead of the big one the police chief wanted.
But the flip side is also true. Suppose Vancouver elects an old-school, tough-on-crime mayor this fall to replace Mr. Stewart. So what? If the rules are applied consistently, city leaders wouldn’t be able to earmark big police budget increases for specific priorities either, nor hold the chief accountable for how those increases were spent.
Other democracies aren’t as squeamish about clearer links between voters and policing decisions. For example, most French city police services report directly to local mayors, and the English elect police commissioners for most of their metropolitan governments.
But we need a change in doctrine alongside any additional democracy. “No operational direction” has become a broad license for police departments to object to almost any financial, procedural or democratic oversight except the outright replacement of a chief. Our real goal should be more precise: we need to keep politics out of tactical police decisions, instead.
In Canada, the best path to deliver both outcomes may be to simply turn back the clock. In early 20th-century Toronto, a “Board of Police Commissioners” set policy. But there were only three commissioners: the mayor and two legal officers (often judges) appointed by the province. City councillors could review police spending and outcomes just like any other departmental budget. Council was free to gather community input from any police advisory boards they chose to create.
Had this model been in place, Ottawa’s top elected officials would have had clear jurisdiction to direct police to enforce the law as convoy blockades dragged on. If a mayor’s direction was deemed corrupt, overly tactical or partisan, two qualified legal officials would be on the board to override it.
In short, the model we scrapped had a lot going for it: clarity, checks and balances, and accountability to councillors and voters. It begs the question of why we replaced it with the dysfunction most Canadian cities struggle with today.
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